OLD FORT BAY - VIEUX FORT
So welcome to Old Fort Bay. Here in the town of Old Fort I'll find the end (for the moment) of Highway 138 and this is why I've come all the way here - and on two occasions too.
You will see the note on the sign to indicate that that the town considers itself to be "North America's First Capital" and surprisingly, this may even be true although the claim is not without its critics.
And we'll talk about that in due course while I'm giving you the guided tour. In the meantime, I'll mention that the place is often referred to as Vieux Fort. That is in fact the name preferred by the local authorities of Quebec, but not by the inhabitants. As I've said before, this is an Anglophone area.
I'm much more interested, for the moment at least, of finding the end of Highway 138 and sure enough, down in the harbour I stumble across the sign.
And when I said just now that it's the end of the Highway "for the moment" I do have to admit that I said that with a considerable amount of optimism. While the Quebec authorities are examining the possibility of extending Highway 138 along the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence, they are starting from the western end
So while you admire the same view from 2015, let me tell you that the extended highway has already reached Kegaska, with La Romaine thought by many to be the stopping point of the next length of extension, whenever that might be.
At that rate, it's going to be another 100 years or more before the road arrives here at Old Fort and many people believe that the slow progress, the delays and cancellations are actually serving a certain political purpose.
if Armand Joncas succeeds in his (and many other people's) wish to have this region attached to the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador instead, the Quebec authorities will have deliberately not wasted a single cent of their budget on infrastructure that will eventually belong to another Province.
And as I have said many times before ... "and you'll say many times again" - ed ... it's not the fact that there are all of these conspiracy theories floating around that is disturbing. What is disturbing is that so many people have so little faith in their governments that they are prepared to take the conspiracy theories on board.
People have lost faith with their government - something that is happening throughout the western world right now since the Fascists seized control - and this surely is the beginning of the end of national democracy.
In another 100 years we'll all be living in tribes of little self-interest groups fighting with each other for resources, just like the Innu and the Inuit did at St Paul's River.
I arrived at the quayside here at Old Fort in the glorious sunshine of a day in late September in 2015. You can see how I arrived here - that's the road that runs horizontally across the middle of the photograph. We come into the town from right to left
The bay is actually shaped like a W and this is the eastern - or left-hand - indentation of the bay. The harbour and its installations are on the central promontory looking towards the east.
This is the same photo as the one above, but this time taken in 2014. The weather all the way down to here had been bad, as you will have noticed from some of the earlier photos, but it changed dramatically while I was looking around here. Despite the fog and the high winds, we suddenly found ourselves in the middle of what can only be described as a tropical monsoon.
This seemed like the perfect cue to abandon my exploration and have a break for lunch. I had some bread and salad stuff in the back of the Dodge and so I parked up on the quayside and made myself some butties. And I sat and read a book, hoping that the weather will improve in early course.
Through the rear window of the Dodge I could see the little harbour here and have a look at all of the boats that were moored up. We have the usual outboard-powered dinghies moored up, but there are also a few fishing boats moored here. Fishing is the major source of employment in this area.
The blue fishing boat is called Midnight Prowler and according to the name on her stern she is registered in Gaspé. Seeing as we haven't had a "Ship of the Day" today as yet, I'll nominate her for now because I've been able to find her registration details.
She was built in 1993 by the company Bateaux Denis Servant which is situated in St Joachim de Tourelle, a suburb of Sainte Anne des Monts on the Gaspe Peninsula across the St Lawrence River from Port Cartier. Her registration with Transport Canada dates from 22nd February 1994 and expires on 31st January 2017.
She's still here in 2015, all 48 feet and 52 tonnes of her and if you think that that is tiny for this kind of vessel, then the Nina and Pinta, the ships that crossed the Atlantic with Columbus when he discovered America in the Santa Maria, were only a matter of a couple of feet and a couple of tonnes bigger than this.
A Norse or Viking knarr that sailed the North Atlantic between Scandinavian, Iceland, Greenland and the North American coast would have been the same size.
And the Squirrel, one of the ships that sailed with Sir Humphrey Gilbert in July 1583, had a displacement of just 10 tons.
The reason why the Midnight Prowler is here would seem to be because according to her latest registration, she's owned by Ross Fequet and Company whose address is given as Old Fort Bay. This company is known to the Canadian authorities as a tuna, crab and capelin fisher.
And not only that - the name of Fequet is said to have been known in the area for nigh on 175 years, and there were people of the same name who ran a few trading posts up the Labrador Coast at Paradise River and Cartwright and on one or two of the outlying islands until shortly after World War II.
The weather did slowly ease while I was eating my lunch. It's now nothing more than a torrential rainstorm. I decide that I can't sit around here all day and I'd better go for a walk around the harbour before it all closes in again.
No matter what might have happened here at Old Fort in the past, no-one will be going very far off the end of that pier these days. It's all boarded up, closed off and disaffected, with "DANGER" written all over it. That seems to be that as far as the pier goes.
And while we are on the subject of the pier ... "well, one of us is" - ed ... I've been giving the matter some serious thought.
I know that the construction of Highway 138 down from Blanc Sablon to Old Fort is of comparatively modern construction and I know that there's a system of coastal supply boats that call at ports all along the isolated "Forgotten Coast". You may recall that in 2012 we went out through the ice in the Gulf of St Lawrence on board one of them.
As we admire the pier during the sunny afternoon of September 2015, I'm therefore a-wondering whether the Nordik Express or one of her sisters or ancestors called here in the days before Highway 138 was built down here.
If that were indeed the case, this would almost certainly have been the pier at which she docked.
The sign from "Transport Canada, Harbours and Ports" informing us that this is the "Vieux-Fort (leaving aside the polemic about the use of French for a moment) Marine Terminal" is certanly suggestive, but I've not been able to track anything down to give me any further information.
All that I can tell you is that at one time there were harbours at Quebec, Montreal, Baie Comeau and Rimouski that were jam-packed - even as late as the 1960s - with goelettes that worked their way up and down the coast from port to port.
Nowadays we just have the Northern Ranger out of Goose Bay that works up the northern Labrador coast, and the Bella Desgagnés, the successor to the Nordik Express that works the coast from Rimouski and Sept Iles up as far as Blanc Sablon.
The MV Apollo just works the ferry between St Barbe and Blanc Sablon but when that run was inaugurated in 1966, the Northern Cruiser, (previously the 1959-built N A Comeau from the Baie Comeau - Matane - Godbout run) worked as many as fifteen additional ports up the Labrador coast when ice permitted, and I wish that I could find out which ones they were.
There's a footpath off the quayside that takes you out to look over the western indentation of the bay. It's considerably overgrown but I make adetermined effort to hack my way through it and eventually arrive at the shoreline.
Not that I can see very much here with the weather, but it does give me an opportunity to reflect on the fact that when I was down at the other end of Highway 138 in May 2012 we were having absolutely identical weather conditions.
Things are better in 2015 of course and we can see what we are supposed to be looking at. And what we are looking at is what is considered by many to be the site of the oldest European community in North America.
If you have a look on what may well be the oldest European map of North America you'll see that there is a settlement called "Brest" marked thereupon, and in a location that may well indicate this spot, although it isn't possible to say with any absolute certainty, given the rather crude nature of the map.
The name of Brest is taken from the name of a major seaport in the Finisterre department of France - the nerve centre of what used to be the Duchy of Brittany which at this time was an independent state (it was not annexed to France until 1532).
The foundation of the Brest over here at the mouth of the Gulf of St Lawrence became known to the world as early as 1504 - a mere seven years after Cabot's "discovery" of North America.
However there are suggestions that, even leaving aside the visits of the Norse adventurers and subsequent Norse settlers from Greenland who were in contact with the Coasts of Labrador, North America was known to the Europeans well before the arrival of Cabot.
And there are several good reasons that might back up these claims.
As to why these earlier voyages were never publicised by the sailors concerned, it has to be borne in mind that they were private traders, not Government-sponsored explorers and discoverers.
It's quite a reasonable point of view to argue that just like any other good traders, the Breton fishermen and Basque whalers, having made the discovery of an exceptional source of supply, would wish to keep the discovery to themselves.
And what could well have prompted them to declare their find was the fact that with the explorations of Cabot and others around the Newfoundland and Labrador coasts and claiming for England what they had discovered, the Bretons feared that they would be muscled out of their "unclaimed" fishing grounds.
However, my comments above are nothing more than speculation.
But the existence of Brest was certainly known after 1504, and the map was sufficiently accurate for Jacques Cartier to find his way there on 10th June 1534 to take on wood and water, and he also took part in what could probably be the first recorded mass to be said in what is now Canada.
He made mention in his notes that "much fishing is carried on there" and also that "Indians" - presumably Innu - were present for the seal catch, adding that Brest was
"not their habitation, but they came from the mainland out of hotter countries to catch the said seals and other necessities for their living".
He further remarked that trade between the Europeans and the autochtones seemed already to be following an established custom and practice.
By this time Brittany was part of France, having been annexed in 1532. And so, before leaving the scene, Cartier erected a huge cross on a headland somewhere in the vicinity, said by some to be at the Baie des Rochers, about fifteen kilometres to the southwest, in order to claim the land for the French.
Lewis Roberts, in his "Dictionary of Commerce" in 1638 stated that Brest was
"the chief town of New France, the residence of the Governor, Almoner and other public offcers ... It is computed that it contained 200 houses and 1,000 inhabitants in winter"
It might be argued that Roberts' information was extracted from a work called Coppie dune lettre envoyee de La Nauville France ou Canada, par le Sieur des Combes - "Copy of a letter sent from New France or Canada by the Gentleman of Combes" of 1609
However, the "Gentleman of Combes" went on to comment about the area and its
"... abundance of fine merchandise, such as silks and jewels, and the fertility of the land. Its inhabitants are a tall, beautiful, white-complexioned people who, in their simplicity enjoy the benediction of heaven because without hard work to make a living ... they have all things in abundance"
So, make up your own mind.
But anyway Brest subsequently disappeared into the mists of history and, as I have said, has yet to re-appear.
And so, with no reasonable doubt whatever about the existence of the port of Brest here on the north shore of the Gulf of St Lawrence, there is, it must be admitted, plenty of doubt as to whether it was right here in Old Fort Bay.
Whatever evidence can be gleaned from a study of the map and of contemporary reports seems to correspond with what we know about the site today, but no relics either of the settlement or of Cartier's cross have ever been uncovered.
This has led to some extremely "lively" debates between historians, but the opponents of the site of Old Fort Bay for the site of Brest have not been able to make a better suggestion for the location of the settlement, and certainly no contemporary relics or remains of a cross have been discovered elsewhere.
We next hear of the region in 1702. I mentioned elsewhere that at that time the representatives in Nouvelle France of the King of France were parcelling out the land a the mouth of the Gulf of St Lawrence into concessions awarded to those who had served the Crown in some fashion.
This area was awarded to Augustin Le Gardeur de Courtemanche. He was a captain in the old French equivalent of the Marines and had considerable success in his dealings with the Native Americans. For his services, he was granted a 10-year concession here in Old Fort Bay.
He is said to have built a fort - from which the town takes its name - but which was burned down during an Inuit raid on the area after he had moved his operations to Brador, where we encountered him earlier.
As an aside, on leaving his concession he was granted the title of Commandant of Labrador - a title subsequently inherited by his son - and this is another claim that is made when the attachment of this area to the Province of Newfoundland and Labrador is considered.
The fall of Quebec led to the abandonment of the area by the French and all of the trading rights were taken over by the Labrador Company which was granted a monopoly of trade in the area.
It was not until 1820 that the monopoly ceased and this led to the arrival of settlers from from places like Newfoundland and the Gaspé peninsula and even from as far away as the Channel Islands in Europe.
Some time round about 1840, Samuel Robinson, a resident of the area, claimed to have discovered the remains of what he reckoned to be about 200 houses.
However the scene was visited by an archaeological expedition, led by Dr Samuel Johnson, in 1905. His conclusion was that what Robinson had discovered were the remains of the early 18th Century trading site.
When the Bretons were here, it was said to be a seasonal fishing village. And there is still today, 500 years after the Breton occupation of the area, some continuance of the tradition.
Some of the inhabitants own cottages on some of the outlying islands that shelter the bay from the storms in the Gulf of St Lawrence. They (the people, not the storms) move to the island in the summer season to fish, in a kind of modern maritime transhumance.
Old Fort Island and Dog Island are two of the most popular islands for this, and I would have been tempted to borrow a boat and one of the 350 or so inhabitants of the town to take me over - especially to Dog Island where there are the remains of a shipwreck to be seen.
But in 2014 it was clearly out of the question in view of the weather, and in 2015 I forgot.
And despite having reached the end of Highway 138, I've not quite finished yet.
There's still somewhere else I need to go.
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